New test for drug cheats
University of Otago, Christchurch researchers are developing a new test to assist the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) uncover drug cheats in sport.
Associate Professor Chris Pemberton and colleagues from the Christchurch Heart Institute recently won a WADA research contract to create a test to detect Erythropoietin (EPO) in athletes’ blood samples.
EPO is a naturally-occurring hormone, produced by the kidneys, that stimulates the production of red blood cells. This hormone can also be manufactured and injected into the skin or directly into the blood stream.
The use of artificial EPO to increase athletic performance first emerged in the 1980s and, more recently, in high-profile scandals in professional cycling.
Pemberton says testing for EPO is difficult because athletes have sophisticated protocols for taking it and can time its use so benefits are gained long after levels in the blood return to normal. Synthetic EPO is indistinguishable from the natural protein.
The new test will detect a part of EPO that has not previously been measured.
“Current tests can focus only on parts of the EPO protein that scientists know are essential for performance improvement. However, we have discovered a part of the protein that was not thought to be in the blood.
“Now, thanks to the support of WADA, and the guidance of Professor Dave Gerrard [Dunedin School of Medicine], we will work to develop a test which can be used in trials on athletes.
“WADA encourages sportspeople to play fair – that’s something we agree with and we are very excited to be able to help them promote that.”